If future historians wish to date the end of religious freedom in Hong Kong, they can note Wednesday, 11 May 2022. It was on that day a week ago that Hong Kong’s national security police arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen, former parliamentarian Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, popular singer Denise Ho Wan-sze and academic Hui Po-keung. They were accused of colluding with foreign forces. All four were trustees of a now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was set up to provide legal assistance to people involved in the anti-government protests in 2019.
The arrests came just days after the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong John Lee was chosen. Under the Chinese Communist Party’s version of democracy, Lee was the unopposed candidate chosen by the 1,461 members of the Beijing-appointed election committee. The appointment of the former chief security officer of Hong Kong clearly demonstrated the CCP’s determination to crush any support for freedom and democracy. Lee had already played a leading role in the crackdown on the pro-democracy protests. He has no experience of economics or the range of services provided to the populace, let alone international finance for which the British colony was renowned. His record on democracy is to brutally oppose it. In 2019, Lee visited Xinjiang province and subsequently informed Hong Kong legislators that they should learn from the handling of the Uighurs. It is clear that Lee will continue the crackdown pursued by his predecessor Carrie Lam under the national security laws imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. As the last governor of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patten observed, Lee ‘would not know the rule of law if it hit him in the eye with a plastic baton rod,’ adding that the regime is ‘hellbent on turning Hong Kong into a police state.’
The CCP has been fixated with the 90-year-old Cardinal Zen, who has spent the last few years visiting political prisoners in jail. Three years ago, when Zen and the leading democracy advocate Martin Lee were invited to speak to an international meeting of Catholic legislators in Portugal, China’s embassy in the country pressured organisers to withdraw the invitations. When this failed, they staked out the hotel and tried to infiltrate the meetings.
As noted in a previous column, Zen had been attacked in the pro-Beijing newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, earlier this year, the oft used modus operandi of totalitarian regimes seeking to demonise opponents before arresting them. While Catholic clerics were subject to show trials and long imprisonments during the Mao period, Cardinal Zen will be the first Catholic bishop forced by the CCP to stand trial in many years.
Possibly more shocking than the arrests has been the response of the Vatican to the detention of a cardinal of the church. ‘The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest,’ said the press office director Matteo Bruni. He added that the Holy See ‘is following the evolution of the situation with extreme caution.’
There are a number of reasons for such a weak statement from the Vatican. Primarily, its foreign diplomats, led by the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, still cling to the secret agreement with the CCP. Parolin is a devotee of the disastrous Ostpolitik doctrine practised by a predecessor, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, until it was ditched by a victim of totalitarianism, Pope John Paul II. According to Parolin, such agreements are ‘useful for regulating the life of the church and guaranteeing its independence in the face of desire to interfere in its organisation.’ The Secretary of State seems oblivious to the truism that deception is a tool commonly deployed by authoritarian regimes. Whatever benefit the Vatican was promised by its agreement is illusory, as millions of believers in China know. Far from an improvement in religious freedom, Xi Jinping has led an increasingly brutal persecution of religious believers.
Cardinal Zen’s criticism of the Parolin approach probably contributed to the almost mute response of the church. Zen described the agreement with the communists as ‘suicide’ and a ‘shameless surrender’ to the CCP. When Zen went to Rome to discuss the issue, he was refused a meeting by the Pope. So much for collegiality!
Contrast the limp language from the Vatican to the robust response from the President of the Asian Bishops Conferences, Cardinal Charles Bo. As Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, Bo is no stranger to totalitarian regimes. ‘I wish to express my profound concern about the situation for human rights and threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong… Hong Kong used to be one of Asia’s freest and most open cities. Today, it has been transformed into a police state. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, and academic freedom have all been dismantled. There are early signs that freedom of religion or belief, a human right set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is a party, is threatened. I am aware of recent propaganda attacks against the Church in pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong, and of growing self-censorship among religious leaders due to the circumstances. To see a city that was a beacon for freedom, including religious freedom, move so radically and swiftly down a much darker and more repressive path is heartbreaking. To see a government in China break its promises made in an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, so repeatedly and blatantly, is appalling.’
‘Cardinal Joseph Zen was arrested and faces charges simply because he served as a trustee of a fund which provided legal aid to activists facing court cases. In any system where the rule of law exists, providing assistance to help people facing prosecution meet their legal fees is a proper and accepted right. How can it be a crime to help accused persons have legal defence and representation?’
Chris Patten is correct when he says ‘this will presumably drive a nail in the coffin of attempts by the Vatican to establish some sort of deal with China’s communists, who regard any sort of religion as a threat to their tyrannous grip on power’. We can only hope his prediction is accurate.
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